BRAHMS: Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 48.
Kerstin Lindberg-Torlind (soprano); Bernhard Sönnerstedt (baritone)Stockholm Konsertförenings Orkester & Musikalista Sällskapet Kör (Stockholm, 19 November 1948)

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Hans Hotter (baritone)
Orchester der Luzerner Festwochen & Chor der Luzerner Festwochen
(Lucerne, 20 August 1947)
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond.
Music & Arts CD 1085 (2 CDs) (F) (AAD) TT: 79:25 + 79:17

I admit up front that I have never heard a performance of the German Requiem that satisfied me completely. Indeed, during my anti-Brahms apostasy, my opinion coincided with George Bernard Shaw's notorious and wickedly funny remark that it was an exercise "borne patiently only by the corpse." But I was an enthusiastic chorister and so had opportunities of hearing it and singing it—or parts of it—again and again. I began to be struck by the impression that I liked the individual numbers very much indeed, but that the whole bored the earwax out of me. I got the bright idea to list the obstacles in my way of the whole:

1. Very little change from a basic slow tempo.

2. Many of the numbers share the same shape: prelude and fugue.

Slow tempi, of course, cause more problems than fast, particularly over the long haul. Too-slow tempi—and I'm one of the heretics that dislikes Klemperer's probably-classic account on EMI—destroy the sense of  forward motion. As you can tell from the timings, these aren't the zippiest performances around (and notice how consistent the timings are; Furtwängler really did want it this slow). Nevertheless, it's not the quantifiable number of beats per minute that's the problem, but whether one can maintain the forward impulse of the piece at the tempo one sets. Furthermore, Brahms brings off his contrasts mainly by dynamics and texture, sometimes through unusual modulation. A conductor needs to seek out opportunities for variety and to make the most of them when they come up.

Learning of these two performances by Furtwängler excited me. The conductor is known for his ability to get music to move, as well as for the depth of his interpretations. The disc presents two live performances from the Forties. The "historic" sound crackles even more than usual. I'd bet these are something like air checks on poor-quality acetates. From the standpoint of sound quality alone, the Lucerne performance is worse than the Stockholm one, with a shift from a high-treble hiss to a covered quality and back every now and then I can't account for. Occasionally, one can detect a slight warp in the playback. However, on the criterion of musicianship, the Lucerne account outstrips the Stockholm, which itself is undoubtedly one of the best performances I've heard. In Lucerne, however, Furtwängler bottled lightning.

The Stockholm performance begins a line of music that flows powerfully and inexorably along. The choir enters out of nowhere, with a true pianissimo. We can say the same for the long, dead-march second movement, "Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras" ("for all flesh is as grass"). The procession moves with the strength and intensity of lava. Things bog down a bit in the baritone-with-chorus number, "Herr, lehre doch mich" ("Lord, teach me"), due mostly to the baritone, Sönnerstedt. On the other hand, Furtwängler, despite several attempts in the orchestral interludes, can't escape the goo, the sense of stasis, and neither can the choir, whose sound becomes muddier. Fortunately, they clear up for the fugue, which finally breaks free with a mighty bound.

"Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" ("how lovely are thy habitations"), the shortest chorus, usually gives the least trouble to performers, which may account for its popularity as a separate number. Furtwängler does nothing outwardly startling, eschewing Interpretation with a capital I. Nevertheless, for me he captures the quintessentially Brahmsian serenity of this allegretto securely. The crescendo to the fugato is superbly handled, as is the much harder decrescendo to the coda.

With the entrance of the soprano soloist, the performance dips again. She has the wind to make very long phrases, but still the notes tend to come one at a time, even though she doesn't take a breath. The character of her singing is also fairly one-dimensional: general-purpose Sad. The second baritone solo, about the mystery of our change at the last trumpet, lacks all mystery. The electricity comes from the orchestra and chorus, with wonderfully vital articulate bowing from the strings and clear, commanding tone from the choir. To be fair, I must admit that the baritone quickly catches that excitement. The last movement begins with a bump. I don't agree with Furtwängler's decision here to begin so emphatically, since I want to hear an emotional tie between this movement and the beginning of the entire piece. I know why he does what he does, and the score supports him rather than me. Nevertheless, I wish he didn't take so long to back off the dynamic and to caress the music more. For he does deliver, just not as quickly as I would like.

The Lucerne recording opens with music-making at the highest level. Furtwängler surprised me with, in addition to finding the consolation in the music, the depth of passion in the very first chorus. It never occurred to me that this music could express passion and thus Furtwängler revealed something about the music I didn't know. The dead-march reaches levels of intensity beyond any other performance I've heard -- this despite the fact that the recording technology couldn't capture the loud end of the dynamic range. The sound just kind of poops out with an accompanying "bloom" of distortion, even though chorus and orchestra continue to get louder. Again, the crescendi and diminuendi are seamless, and Furtwängler achieves his volume without shouts or tromping on each note. It's like watching a thunderstorm form in a desert sky. Furtwängler handles the transition to the fugue magnificently, and the fugue itself blazes. The festival chorus of Lucerne has not only the technique, but great understanding of the text. The Stockholm group has nothing to apologize for, but the Lucerne choir shows it as capable, if not inspired. The liner notes point out that the festival chorus was, amazingly, an ad hoc group.

The arrival of the baritone soloist -- Hans Hotter, the great Wotan -- takes everything to a new neighborhood of the empyrean. The voice itself is gorgeous. More importantly, the singer not only shapes real phrases, he injects into the music a drama missing from the Stockholm baritone's rendering. Here, instead of two different performances going on simultaneously, everybody's in the same room, to terrific effect. The crescendo to the fugue ginned me up no end, and the fugue shoots out of that windup as if from a gun. "Wie lieblich," in almost the worst sound on the disc, nevertheless takes care of itself, as usual. The slight rhythmic insecurities in the fugato aren't worth talking about.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf steps in for the soprano solo. She buries the Swedish soprano. Schwarzkopf's voice always takes me a little while to get used to, but her musical intelligence is formidable -- an instrument that tunes itself perfectly to the meanings of the text. And the tone isn't as glassy as it later became. The recorded sound here is the worst on the entire disc.

The mystery of the last trumpet unfolds like gangbusters, with Hotter alternately overawed by that mystery and proclaiming its magnificence, the chorus following his lead, and the orchestra conveying the anxiety of apocalypse. The last trumpet (actually, trombones) sounds, and we see an army of the dead leaping out of their graves to rush to final judgment. The fugue begins a bit roughly, but it soon settles into a free groove. The strings don't bow as sharply as the Stockholm band, but the volts are still there in spades.

Furtwängler doesn't press as much at the beginning of the last movement, compared with Stockholm. This should have been what I wanted, but the music, without that intensity, bogs down here -- just one of the many little traps Brahms has laid into this piece. It takes to the modulation into the major, at the words "Ja, der Geist spricht," to get moving again, and again this has little to do with the quantifiable number of beats per minute. Indeed, that hardly changes at all, if at all. But before that point, the music doesn't move, and after that point, it does.

So I still haven't heard a perfect Deutsches Requiem, even interpretively (forget the sonics for a moment). The Lucerne performance certainly qualifies as one of the best, and the Stockholm fills the hungry with good things, despite the lackluster soloists.

S.G.S. (Dec. 2001)